I am currently a year 12 student.
As part of my research, I would love to hear some answers in which you think is better -gaining aural skills or knowing music notation- when wanting to improve your piano skills (coming from a beginner piano player who is teaching themselves using a variety of sources).


closed as primarily opinion-based by Richard, MattPutnam, Dom Mar 11 '18 at 23:04

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    There is no right answer to this. They are both important, but which is better for you depends on you. – David Bowling Mar 9 '18 at 4:37
  • I suppose it comes down to: do you want to be a piano player or a musician? – Tim Mar 9 '18 at 9:18

As Tim says, knowing notation will give you the ability to sit down and be a 'human jukebox', instantly playing pieces without having heard them. Notation is also usually going to be a better route to precisely playing highly-complex works.

It would be nice to be able to say that learning notation would give you some special insight into the structure of music, and the ability to think about music at a deeper level. Unfortunately, though, I've met many people who 'took lessons' when they were younger who can play (sometimes quite well) with the score in front of them, but otherwise seem to have almost no other abilities in music. They seem to me like musical savants - they can perform this mechanical function, but don't seem to be able to think in terms of sound, which (to me) is surely what being a musician is about.

Having said that, as Jomiddnz says, for the piano or other keyboard instruments, it seems a bit of a lost opportunity not to learn notation well, as the notation system is very closely related to the layout of the keyboard. In a way, the concept and mental model needed to actually hit the keys are the same as the model needed to read notation.

Ideally, what you will do is learn notation and aural skills, and get a kind of triangle of representations of music that support each other:

a kind of triangle of skills

And you should be able to navigate that triangle along any side - e.g. if you're learning notation properly, you should be able to look at a score and 'hear' the piece in your head without needing to touch the instrument at all. And of course to be any kind of balanced musician, you do want to be able to hear a tune and be able to play it without needing to see a score - can you imagine a singer who, upon hearing a tune, couldn't sing it back by ear? That would be a strange kind of musician.

What you don't want to do (IMO) is just work on the 'short side' of the triangle - relating the dots on the page to finger positions without relating that to the actual sound of the music. I believe that's the position the musical unfortunates I referred to earlier got themselves into.

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    Bit like being able to read a foreign language, but not having a clue what it all means? – Tim Mar 9 '18 at 9:03
  • @Tim yep... actually you've just described my Korean skills very well! – topo morto Mar 9 '18 at 9:05
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    While some may have learned to read without ever going on to understand the deeper structures, I wonder how easy it is and how often it happens that one understands the deeper structures despite not being able to read music. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 20:09

Virtually all the musos I've played with are better at one than the other. Only half a dozen out of hundreds are genuinely good at both - sight-reading or playing by ear - which I presume your question is asking.

When we start, most of us are slightly better at one than the other, and my feeling is that that one gets favoured. That leaves the other trailing, so the one gets strengthened while the other weakens.

To the question. In certain circumstances, being able to 'read like a fish' - never understood that one - is paramount. Given a new chart, it's instantly playable, and comes to life there and then. Trouble with that is, usually, it gets played exactly as written, as the player is doing what he's told, and often can't/won't do anything else. Not knocking it. It's a fantastic skill, but for me falls a little short, as the player often doesn't put his own mark on it. Great when someone is depping in a band, as everything sounds like it does every time.

The other side of the coin is to hear something, and reproduce it. Exactly if you like, but also most of these players will change things subtly, which for me is what music is far more about. It's organic rather than clinical - for me, I emphasise. Trouble with that is, they can't do it until they've heard it. Obviously. So there's a time factor and effort factor involved. Either they have to listen to a recording, or have someone play it at the time. But after, it seems to come more alive than the previous scenario.

So, both very important, each in its own way, and somewhat subjective - which isn't popular here - and the deciding factor may well be, as David says, what each means to you. If you envisage playing in an orchestra or the pit, then the former is better. If it's a covers band, maybe the latter. If it's quality jazz, maybe both... My choice is 50/50!

  • A good answer to a slippery question. "Read like a fish": I love that phrase! – David Bowling Mar 9 '18 at 13:44
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    @DavidBowling - possibly a red herring... – Tim Mar 9 '18 at 13:47
  • I suspect the whole phrase is "read the way a fish swims" - without even thinking about it. – Todd Wilcox Apr 25 '18 at 20:10

It's an interesting question. For almost any other instrument, I would have definitely said aural skills. But for piano (especially at the early stage), there seem so many notes, and with less emphasis on sound production and no emphasis on intonation, I would say note reading skills.

  • Most guitars have getting on for 4 octaves, and most instruments can manage a good 3. Beginner piano players don't use any more than that. In fact on an 88 key piano, a lot of the time most people will not touch the top couple or bottom couple of octaves, thus leaving around- 3 octaves. Although needing skills in reading bass and treble clef has to be harder than just the one which most instruments command. – Tim Apr 21 '18 at 17:04

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